Born in Ireland, Jim Forsythe came to Canada when he was two years old. Since his father was a United Church minister, the Forsythe family — mom, dad, Forsythe and his two siblings — moved every five years or so, which made him feel some kinship with the military folk who often experience the same sort of semi-transient life.
After training in theatre at the University of Alberta, Forsythe spent 12 years as a “journeyman Canadian actor.” He went to grad school at the University of Victoria in 1988, where he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Directing and Production. He’s been the drama professor at Brandon University since 1990 and has written three plays, the most recent of which, “Safer Ground,” will be showcased in the Evans Theatre on the BU campus beginning this Thursday.
So which other plays have you written and staged?
‘Six War Years.’ It was much the same as ‘Safer Ground’ — it was kind of a compilation, but I didn’t do the research because I took it from a novel. ‘Six War Years’ was assembled from what Barry Broadfoot had written in a book. So using the same style, ‘Soldier Up!’ — the play that preceded ‘Safer Ground’ — was created, except there was no book, so I had to get the interviews. ‘Soldier Up!’ was based on conversations I had with soldiers based in Canadian Forces Base Shilo who had served in Afghanistan, and on their families — I interviewed moms and a grandma and spouses. And ‘Safer Ground’ was a combination of soldiers and Afghans — Afghan-Canadians that I interviewed when I was on sabbatical in Montreal.
Why this? Did you just feel there was an untold story, or more to tell, after ‘Soldier Up!’?
Well, the thing about doing the soldier stories is that you only had one side of the story. So the opportunity arose when I went to Montreal, because I knew there was an Afghan community there, to get the other side of the story. Because I thought, ‘Who cares the most about what Canada’s doing in Afghanistan?’ Well, Canadian soldiers and their families, AND Afghan Canadians who still have relatives there. It just made sense. So I wanted to get the take of both.
And also, it seemed to me, both sides — their opinions about whether we should stay or go was either never asked or never broadcast on any media that I saw. There wasn’t much of a debate. We went, and now we’re leaving. And that’s that.
So what drew you to this subject matter in the first place? Are you connected to the military at all?
No. It was a student who came into my class in the fall of 2007. At the beginning of my class, ‘Intro to Theatre,’ the first assignment is to tell me a story about something that changed your life — an axis point in your life. So you were one kind of a person before this event, and another person after. So people tell stories, a lot of them about being alone for the first time, about moving away from home — often, in that age group, the loss of a grandparent.
This one kind of slender young man, sitting cross-legged in a circle along with everybody else, said, ‘Six weeks ago, I was in Afghanistan.’
So everybody got very silent. And I went, ‘Oh my god.’ Because before, it was just two minutes on the TV news. And all of a sudden it was sitting in front of us.
So I thought about it and I talked to him, and we went to the Double Decker, and on the backs of many bar napkins, he drew me up a ground plan of what Kandahar Airfield was, what the tents looked like, and talked to me about the training in Wainwright. He gave me a lot of background about what I could ask, and then I kind of put the word out CBC helped, The Shilo Stag helped, the Military Family Resource Centre helped. Gradually word of mouth got around and I interviewed soldiers and their spouses and put it together and made the play.
What happens is you take interviews, like you’re doing now, and then you transcribe them. You end up with reams of material and you have to then distill it into what would be usable onstage what has dramatic impact. So out of an hour-long interview, I might take five minutes, I might take 30 seconds.
But anyway, I asked the same questions of all the soldiers. And you get patterns in the story, so you’re kind of developing a narrative of what it was like. Like, ‘why did you join up? What was training like? What was leaving like? What was arriving like? What was being there like? And then what was coming home like?’ So you have kind of an arc of a journey.
Then with the Afghans, I did almost exactly the same thing, because I was a lot wiser — it was the second time around, in a way. ‘What was it like there? How did you get out?’ Which generally means refugee camps. ‘What was it like coming to Canada? Being sponsored? Settling in? And now that you’re Canadian, what do you think about what’s going on? And how do you view the communication with your relatives who are still there?’
So we had this kind of journey of one group going to Afghanistan and the other group coming to Canada. It’s almost like they crossed somewhere over the Atlantic. And I tried to put that together. It’s almost like making a collage. I took all these transcripts and I’d cut all these pieces of the text or the script out of the interviews, and I’d literally paste them — so sometimes they’re intact, sometimes they’re interposed, sometimes there’s a line of one and a line of another. Sometimes conversations are created between people who actually have never met.
But you get the idea that this is an intra-cultural collision of Canadians of various ethnicities, and Afghan-Canadians. So the military and the Afghans are sort of all talking about the same thing at the same time. And what’s interesting to me is that often, I have people on stage talking — Afghan-Canadians saying EXACTLY the same thing as I heard a Canadian soldier say. You put them side by side and it’s difficult to know, if you closed your eyes, which one is saying it. There was a tremendous amount of unity in their comments. So the differences between the two communities are not as great as the commonalities.
This sounds really interesting! It’s so cool that you put your own works on the stage. And from what I know about you, the plays you DO stage are usually somewhat obscure, at least to Brandon audiences. Do you have a particular agenda, then, in doing what you’re doing?
Well, it’s a university, and I thought I should be doing something that’s perhaps not commercial — I don’t necessarily have to worry about box office I should be pushing both the students and the audience and doing something that’s more challenging, because it’s not a community theatre, it’s a university theatre. We should be doing plays that are in line with the kind of student research that they’re doing in other subjects. If they’re doing experiments in biology that pushed their minds, if they’re reading avant-garde novels in English class, they should be doing plays that are somewhat outside the commercial mainstream that you might see on Broadway. I’m kind of thinking more Off-Broadway than on. More MTC Warehouse than MTC Mainstage.
Why should people come and see this play?
It’s based on the words of your neighbours. Half of ‘Safer Ground’ is based on interviews I did with soldiers who live next to us. That you see in Sobey’s. That you see when you’re waiting for your kids to get finished with school at 3:45. I mean, these are people that you see every day but you may not have talked to and you may not know what they think.
So this is a window on what they did and how they feel about it. It’s not a scientific sample — it’s just their opinions. And it’s not something I’ve written, so it’s not my thoughts. It’s theirs.
By the same token, we have a multi-cultural climate now in Brandon. We don’t have that many Afghans, but you do see people and you think, ‘What is their life like? How do they feel?’
And a lot of us are children of immigrants, or second generation. So we have the Lieutenant Governor’s Winter Festival where people revel in their Ukrainian or their Mauritian or their Irish roots. Well, the way I feel about Ireland is EXACTLY the way these people feel about Afghanistan. They don’t think of it as a place that’s torn apart by 35 years of war. They think of it as home.
Once you think about that, I think you care a little more about what goes on. And this is just trying to make people aware, so they’re educated citizens.
This is the third time for you. Do you anticipate doing anything like this again?
Well, now that I’ve done it, I wouldn’t say I’m not going to do it again, but it’s a hell of a lot of work. I like the idea of verbatim theatre — of taking transcripts and interviews and translating them into a piece of theatre. There are lots of things that could be talked about in terms of what is occurring right now in Brandon — I think of the immigrant situation, I think of the situation around Maple Leaf, of EAL students, of people trying to translate their immigrant lives into the Brandon mainstream and what that has done for us. I think that might be an interesting thing to put on stage, too. It’s real people’s stories, but you have to find a way to make it theatrical. And therein lies the challenge.
"Safer Ground" will be staged in the Evans Theatre at Brandon University Feb. 28, March 1 and March 2 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 3 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at Campus Books at BU or at the door, and are $10 each.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 23, 2013